“Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” – Sanditon (1817)
In 1808, an anonymous novel called The Woman of Colour appeared in London. We don’t know whether Jane Austen read this book. However, three reviews of the book appeared, and it was available in circulating libraries, so it’s quite possible she read it. I can imagine that Miss Lambe might have been at least partially based on Olivia, the heroine of The Woman of Colour.
Olivia is a West Indian heiress, daughter of a black slave and a white plantation owner. On her father’s death, she travels to England to marry her cousin; a marriage her father had arranged for her. She and her black maid face many prejudices and trials, but find their own place in the world.
The book not only tells us about societal attitudes in Austen’s England; it also offers a Christian message. The conclusion encourages readers to seek God in times of trouble. And the editor challenges readers to look compassionately toward every “despised native of Africa.”
This book apparently contributed to the abolitionist literature of Austen’s England. Evangelical Christians like Hannah More, William Cowper (Austen’s beloved poet), Thomas Clarkson (who Austen said she “loved”), and others, wrote to help the British public see the humanity of Africans and the horrors of slavery. This book delves even more deeply into the experiences of African and mixed-race women in England.
The modern edition of The Woman of Colour, edited by Lyndon J. Dominique, includes excerpts from other fiction and nonfiction of the time, showing a range of attitudes toward black immigrants and enslaved people. I highly recommend it, if you want to better understand Austen’s time period.
For more on The Woman of Colour, please go to my recent post on Jane Austen’s World. It will be followed by more posts on the experiences of black people in Austen’s England.
I also posted a list of resources so you can find out more about the lives of black people in Jane Austen’s England. You can also watch a recording of a recent talk on “Political Blackness in The Woman of Colour,” given by the editor, Professor Dominique.
The book tells us that mixed-race Olivia is “a stranger in a strange land, where she is more likely to receive contumely [contempt] than consideration”; however, she is also “the child of humanity, the citizen of the world, with a heart teeming with benevolence and mercy towards every living creature!” (pp. 102-3)
What do you think should be the attitude of Christians toward people outside of our own racial and cultural backgrounds? How can we, in today’s world, show compassion toward those who experience prejudice and discrimination? I am thinking of more than just black and white—people of many cultural backgrounds may feel themselves outsiders at times. The message of the Bible is radical—the former slave is now a beloved brother (Philemon 16). Look around for someone different than yourself and your family—how might you treat that person as a brother or sister today?